Meeting the Black Hmong and Red Dao Tribes

An overnight train took us to the north of Vietnam, to a small highland town called Sapa, home to the traditional Black Hmong and Red Dao tribal villages.

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With the ambience of a ski resort, Sapa was a friendly town housing quaint bars and a winding market that ran through the north of the town. Situated on the top of a massive valley, you were treated to breathtaking views wherever you went.

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In the valley below the local tribes villages lay among miles of paddy fields. Growing rice to feed their village, the Red Dao and Black Hmong people lived peacefully together, relying on selling small trinkets to the tourists that came to the town.

Young girls and women from the village walked the 6km walk through the winding mountain pass to the Sapa town to set up streets stalls selling hand made bags, jewellery and pillow cases. I was instantly shocked by how good their English was. Perhaps naively, I had expected the tribes people to have little or no English knowledge, but when a eight year old girl came up to me and said “Hey how are you? Do you want to come and look at my stall?” I realised I was very wrong.

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Learning English from a young age, to help the sale of the village goods, the girls of the village spoke much better English than the boys who generally worked in the fields.

We went to visit the local village one day, accompanied by a female tribe member who had set up guided tours in order to bring more money in for her family.

Giant water buffalo worked in the rice fields with hundreds of men, ploughing each level so it is ready for plantation. Using the rice solely to feed the village, and never selling any, a healthy crop is the most important thing to the tribes people. Women, children and men are all expected to work in the fields to make sure they are as fertile as possible. Despite their hours of labour, a good crop would still only produce 40-50 kgs of rice per family a year meaning in order to survive, more food would have to be bought.

The children of the village are often left alone while their parents work in the fields or with the animals. Older siblings are responsible for the care of their younger brothers and sisters.

As we walked through the village, past the wooden houses and shacks where the people worked and lived, we came across a larger building. Outside “was a sign saying “Give the locals a rod. Don’t give them any fishes.” Inside a group of men were busy carving and filing stone slabs into beautiful souvenirs. Some were small Buddhas, boxes or hair pins, but others were more complicated chess sets, intricate vases and tea sets. The villagers sell their handiwork to tourists and at market. I looked at a giant vase, with intricate detailing carved all over it which was for sale for 2000 USD. In the UK you would pay at least 6 times that I thought to myself.

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Two young girls took a shine to our group and followed us around as we explored their home. It wasn’t long before another group of younger children spotted us and I was soon surrounded with little hands holding up hand made bracelets, all muttering a chorus of “You buy from me?!” With arms filled with bracelets I continued on the tour.

I looked around at the poverty of the village, kids running around in rags, old ladies still working and two or three families in a house and was shocked by how cheerful the people were. Always smiling and friendly to us, they made us feel welcome. Having set up a “home stay”system where tourists could spend the night in the village, we went inside to have a traditional lunch of noodles and soup.

After lunch we started our trek through the hills surrounding the village. Equipped with hiking boots, I felt a little silly as the two local girls trotted ahead of me in jelly flip flops. They coordinated the hike with such ease, laughing at the members of the group that were struggling, and even carrying their bags!

After my hike in Cat Bah Island, I was beginning to really enjoy trekking, and the scenery around the valleys only enhanced my enjoyment. Watching Ed slip over 3 times did also provide a lot of entertainment both for me and the two little girls.

We climbed up rocky hills, meandered through the Bamboo Forest and ended up at the top of a stunning waterfall which filtered down plummeted down to the village below.